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Facing the far right in Canada

Shut Down Hate banner at Michael Garron hospital
Sid Lacombe

September 29, 2020

While most of the coverage of the rise of the racist far-right focusses on the US and Donald Trump, there is a worrying trend of racists in Canada becoming more bold and deadly. The two are related but they have distinct characteristics that require some study to understand how they could be challenged.

There has been a series of recent racist attacks in Canada that show the escalating problem.

The murder of Mohamed-Aslim Zafis in west-end Toronto by a racist with ties to nazis is part of the never-ending vilification of Muslims that shows no sign of abating. There has been a spate of attacks against south Asian people in the area in recent weeks. There have also been six vandal attacks on the downtown Masjid Toronto over the summer with little response from police.

The ongoing attacks on Indigenous land defenders in Wet’suwet’en, Six Nations and of Mi’kmaq fishers shows that the foundational racism of the settler Canadian state is as virulent as ever. Vandals have destroyed ancient petroglyphs in Ontario by painting them with Canadian flags and bigots in Nova Scotia have even started a petition to re-introduce residential schools arguing that Indigenous people don’t have enough respect for the Canadian state and need to be re-educated.

The increase in attacks against east Asian people since the start of the pandemic has found its voice in the racist campaign of Conservative party leader Erin O’Toole, who can’t stop talking about the evils of the Chinese government and their supposed collusion with the Trudeau government on the Covid crisis.

In Toronto, workers are finding nooses at local construction sites. There have now been seven such incidents, three of them at Michael Garron Hospital in the city’s east end.

And we have the relatively new combination of anti-mask/anti-vaccination/far right groups holding rallies throughout the country. In Montreal, the recent anti-mask rally was littered with far right propaganda from Q-Anon conspiracies to barely veiled anti-semitism.

There have been street parties and rallies in Toronto and numerous other cities spreading conspiracies about Covid. These “Hugs not Masks” rallies are filled with right wing conspiracies.

And far right groups are building their own new formations. Recent demonstrations in Peterborough and Collingwood were organized by the new group Mankind against Pedophiles and Predators or MAPP. Both events were primarily made up of members of the Soldiers of Odin and the Northern Guard – both violent racist groups. They are planning to spread these demonstrations throughout the province in the near future.

In Alberta, a press conference by anti-racism activists was attacked in Edmonton and an attempt to hold a discussion about racism in Red Deer saw people assaulted by white supremacists while the police stood by.

We have also seen a spike in harassment of political leaders from the right. The Q-anon inspired Canadian Revolution group has been camping out in Ottawa and has threatened a citizens arrest of both Prime Minister Trudeau and of Jagmeet Singh who was threatened while walking down the street. The incident is disturbing and has resulted in a call for more police protection for the MPs.

And at least one of the attacks on Trudeau was led by a currently serving member of the Canadian armed forces. There is a dangerous trend of racists joining the CAF to learn the tools of the killing trade and to try and recruit more members of the military to join the far right.

Back on the streets

After the election of Trump in 2016, we saw the beginnings of racist groups feeling the confidence to try and mobilize. In January 2017, a far-right demo was called for City Hall in Toronto. The demo was outnumbered by anti-racists and was stopped from marching. Thus began a multi-year campaign by the far right to have a public presence on the streets. Eventually they were defeated by a combination of much larger and broader anti-racist rallies that confronted them, and some doxxing of the main organizer of the Pegida group that became an organizing locus for the far right.

It seemed for a short while that the immediate threat had subsided. It had, rather, gone underground waiting for the next opportunities to come to the surface. There were occasional flare-ups in Canada such as the far-right led Wexit campaign after the last federal election or the attacks on Wet’suwet’en solidarity blockades – but the the bigots were otherwise on the margins.

But the combination of the Covid pandemic, the resulting economic crisis and the offshoots of the racist response to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the US has given them a series of new grievances around which to organize. The fact that Donald Trump is endorsing the attacks on BLM and anti-fascists provides even more confidence to the bigots on this side of the border and, indeed, around the world as well.

So there are numerous ways that the far right ideologies are finding their expressions today and unfortunately, each of these factors is likely to get worse.

Covid confusion

The first inklings that the far right was going to use the virus to build up their forces came in the spring in the US where anti-lockdown protests – supported by corporate interests – began armed demonstrations at state government buildings. The armed militias even shut down a session of the Michigan assembly. Many of the groups organizing these events had ties to the tea party movements of the Obama era.

This confluence has brought about a new thread on the far right. In conjunction with the anti-vaccination movement, these groups are preying on the fears of Covid-19 and the economic carnage that lockdowns have brought about.

There is little point in trying to lay out the full range of views within this movement and little of what they say makes sense. The notion that this is a virus started by China or George Soros is dangerous. There is a barely veiled anti-semitic theory (Soros controls everything) that unites the ideas of the alt-right with those who are feeling scared for the future and are looking for a scapegoat. This movement has the ability to draw those who are confused and fearful of the disease and it’s impacts to conspiracies that push people further to the right.

This is likely to get worse. One of the buttressing arguments made by groups protesting Covid lockdowns – beyond the conspiracies – is that the governments actions are confused, not based on science and therefore should be opposed. This is used to bolster the notion that the whole disease is, in fact, a conspiracy. The problem with that particular element of the argument is that it is somewhat correct. The leaders of our capitalist states want to maintain profitability so badly that they are peddling their own brand of lies. The Ford government in Ontario is attacking young people for having parties and spreading the virus. They have now capped gatherings at 10 people in the province except in schools, where as many as 30 students are being packed into classrooms. This is being done to allow parents to get back to work and for the profit machines to keep going. But it is not based on the best science or the needs of working people. 

It is precisely that kind of Covid confusion that is leading people to try and find alternative ideas during the pandemic.

Economic crisis

The history of fascism is one of small bands of disconnected people who live on the margins of society who suddenly find traction for their ideas in times of crisis. The anti-lockdown demos have been disturbingly large mainly because they have tapped into the fear that comes from that instability. There are people who are joining not because they are already radicalized by the far-right but because they have rent to pay and little or no income and are fearful of the future.

This is the fertile ground that the right is diving into today. As measures like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) – designed to mitigate the worst of the crisis – begin to subside and the economy continues to make the rich richer at the expense of workers, this pool of people will grow and so does the threat.

Black Lives Matter and Antifa

The third major factor contributing to the rise of the right is the conflict that has developed between the anti-racist protests led by Black Lives Matter groups and the openly racist opposition. This has primarily been a phenomena in the US, but it is growing in Canada. Trump’s endorsement of the armed racists attacking BLM demos has been a confidence boost for the right.

Those who were humiliated and pushed off the streets are now feeling a renewed confidence to take on the left and to express their bigotry publicly because of Trump’s support.

In many ways, the attacks on Indigenous people in Canada are the closest example we find to the situation in the US. This is not a centrally organized right wing force but will, instead, find its expression locally based on perceived wrongs. The heroic struggles of land defenders in Wet’suwet’en earlier this year dominated the political discussion in Canada. The right wing and the oil barons were happy to use the confrontations to set up a jobs versus land defenders narrative to whip up bigotry.

This division was pushed by mainstream political leaders – including the two most prominent Conservative party candidates.

The right, whether they are in mainstream parties or not, will continue to push these divisions wherever possible. They have a project to maintain the profits of the capitalists but know this is unappealing as a raison d'être among working people – so division will remain their standard response to any confrontation from below.

The introduction of Antifa as a new boogeyman by Trump has opened up a new wave of opposition to the left as well. This is leading to a dangerous escalation of attacks – including murders – of progressive forces.

What is to be done?

The situation in the US may be dominating our newsfeeds but there is, obviously, little we can do about that from here. We can, however, do our best to clean up our own backyard.

There is a need for a much broader opposition to the far-right in Canada. There have been great mobilizations against anti-black racism, for Indigenous sovereignty, for migrant rights and against Islamophobia and each plays an important role in pushing back against the bigots.

We need to support those forces and build them whenever possible. But we also need to broaden the forces who can both respond to an immediate situation.

A great example of this comes from the east end of Toronto, where the Reclaim Dentonia Park group has responded to a racist attack in the neighbourhood and has held a series of rallies to push back against local racists. It is by building up the local forces in a big, broad and visible anti-racist campaign that we can sap the confidence of those who want to spread hate. Crucially, that campaign also brought in considerable support from trade unions and is highlighting the needs for unions to step up their game. Trade unions have always been key in anti-racist fights because of the unity of all workers against the boss – regardless of race – builds bonds of unity that are much harder for the right to break.

The trade union response to the nooses at construction sites will also be an important moment to build up the anti-racist response from labour. There are already discussions among labour activists about how to confront far-right elements within the union locals themselves.

The need now is to push for a multi-layered campaign against the right. The solidarity demos against racism are key and we need to confront the fascists when and if they try and march again. But we also need to push back in other areas. The right feeds off despair and poverty. We need to support union fights against austerity, stand against evictions and call for a just recovery from the pandemic chaos as part of our push against the far-right.

As British socialist Tony Cliff said, “Our policy of fighting fascism was two-track: attacking the rats and attacking the sewers in which the rats multiply. Fighting the fascists is not enough. One has also to fight the unemployment, low wages and social deprivation that create conditions for the growth of fascism.”

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